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Panhandlers are panned

Alliance brochure says most beggars aren't homeless

Just in time for Christmas, the Downtown Alliance — a city-funded group that organizes events and generally promotes downtown Salt Lake City — is distributing brochures urging people not to give money to panhandlers.

The brochure, distributed by the alliance, is actually a combined effort of the alliance, Salt Lake City and the Salt Lake Chamber.

The brochure states that many panhandlers are addicted to alcohol and drugs, and people who give to such beggars are supporting their addictions. Instead of giving to panhandlers, the brochure states, people should to give to the city's humanitarian organizations that provide homeless services. That way, the brochure notes "you'll be helping to reduce the number of panhandlers downtown."

The brochure also urges people to speak up to elected officials about their concerns regarding panhandling.

"Individuals who panhandle are usually not homeless and do that as their sole livelihood," the brochure reads. "In fact, some earn a very good living at it."

David Nimkin, Mayor Rocky Anderson's outgoing chief of staff, said the brochures were born out of several meetings with the chamber and other downtown interests who were concerned that panhandling was keeping people from coming downtown and negatively affecting business.

While Anderson has refused to outlaw panhandling in the downtown area, Nimkin said the city decided the brochure was something it could support to curb the problem.

"We determined that really the best thing we could do in working with the business community is to help educate visitors to the downtown and the downtown businesses as to what the nature of the problem is," Nimkin said. "There was a strong interest in representing that there is a distinction between the panhandlers and the homeless. They are not necessarily the same."

Last April city attorney Ed Rutan said he was exploring the possibility of banning beggars downtown. That would be constitutional as long as begging was allowed in other areas of the city, he said.

But without Anderson's support, Rutan abandoned the proposal. Meanwhile, City Councilwoman Nancy Saxton still wants the administration and Rutan to consider making certain downtown beggars register with the city, similar to licensed street vendors.

Saxton, who is aware of the new brochure, said some panhandlers operate like street vendors, staking out prime positions and making up to $10 an hour in tax-free cash.

"This is a strategy," she said. "This is their livelihood. This is what they choose to do with their time to make a living . . . The issue for me is when they go to the same place at the same time, then it becomes a job."

Nimkin and Saxton said panhandling is a growing concern throughout the city's shopping areas, like Sugar House and even neighborhood shopping districts. The brochures, Nimkin said, will likely be used to help curb the problem in those areas too.

Bob Farrington, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, could not be reached for comment. It was not known how many brochures were distributed.

In the early '90s the business community made a couple of attempts to drive beggars out of downtown by setting up donation boxes throughout the area and urging people to donate money, to be distributed to homeless providers, instead of giving handouts.